I’m going to try to simplify a controversy that has started with the unveiling of Apple’s latest mobile operating system iOS 7 and will undoubtedly heat up once people get a chance to play with it and discover how usable, how fun or how frustrating the actual user experience is. Cliff Kuang’s article - The Design Battle Behind Apple’s iOS 7 in Wired does a great job explaining the nature of the collision inside Apple between the old interface style and the new design of iOS 7. It seems that there has been a long standing schism at Apple between the humanistic user interface designers and the purist modern industrial designers.
Since the inception of personal computers, engineers and designers have looked to the analog past for ways to help you and I understand how to navigate and operate a new kind of machine that is not like a rotary phone, an envelope or a smiling human face. Also designers—especially those who were interested in integrating the computer into our daily life—searched for ways to help us connect emotionally with these new alien machines that seemed cold and distant. So these humanistic designers adopted a philosophy of design that, once it was technically possible, imitated natural materials and known formats like the yellow notepad or the address book bound in fine leather.
Proponents of skeuomorphism tell us that familiar objects and materials help you connect with and know how to use buttons and interface elements, and that the familiarity helps create an emotional bond. Leather, yellow pads, dial telephones make us feel warm and fuzzy because they remind us of another happier, more familiar time. So, the skeuomorphites had a good point—the fake leather and 3D looking buttons made the iPhone look and feel like a real object rather than a flat, cold bunch of lines and spaces. Conventions that we took from the pre-iPhone world helped us re-orient ourselves to a new way of doing things.
To a purist, maybe one of the purest designers, Jony Ive, skeuomorphism must have been like putting monster truck tires on his Porsche. When you are steeped in modernism and worship at the alter of Dieter Rams, faux leather and fake highlights are not for you. Why look to the past when you are busy inventing the future?
Most people today have a smart phone, are familiar with its intrinsic functionality. Young people barely remember rotary phones, yellow pads or leather bound address books. The next generations of iPhone users don’t need reminders of a time they have never experienced, and they no longer have to get oriented to the device.
So why did Jony Ive want to get rid of skeoumorphism? Better display technology makes transparent 3D display possible. This makes the screen much more usable if the screen is not cluttered. The problem is that you need to get rid of all the 3D-looking stuff in order to use the new 3D layers or you will get mud.
My firm, Fahrenheit Studio, has designed many user interfaces for the web, applications and mobile. While 3D layers provide tremendous opportunities for quick access in a small area, they can get very muddy and cluttered, especially when you have a bunch of faux reflections, leather textures, and rotary phones that pop off the page. Every media type has rules of execution, and layers require clarity and simplicity.
Complexity = Mud for layered interface design.
But don’t confuse simplicity with simplistic. The 3D layers don’t need fake textures to be gorgeous and rich. The simple interplay of line and form can be as warm but hopefully will not be fuzzy. Modern architecture, industrial and product design has always stood for simplicity and clarity, and except for its venture into skeoumorphic design, Apple has been a leader in modern product design. While there were many excellent reasons for the skeuomorphism of old, the new interface fixes an inconsistency in the Apple brand and reconnects it with simple, clean, materially-honest modern industrial design.